Humour and documentary films – Notes on possibilities of humour and rhetorical functions of documentary forms

HUMOUR / Through authenticity and intimacy, how can we understand the nature of humour in non-fiction works?

«Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.» – E. B. White

Although the above-mentioned phrase is mostly true, I believe there might be some value in understanding humour because it has very significant functions on many levels. Therefore, in my article, I elaborate on authenticity and intimacy, which strongly influence the nature and functions of humour (not only) in documentary audiovisual works, both on the aesthetic and very important rhetorical levels.

Art Talent Show


To discover how authenticity affects humour, we must explore what causes humour. One of the most widespread general theories of humour claims that incongruences are the basis of humour, closely related to surprise and different perspectives. Different protagonists may also represent these different or new perspectives, which may give rise to further incongruences, whether between their views, represented social norms, conventions, etc. (1)

Let me state the relatively obvious point (although, to my surprise, there still isn’t any empirical research to confirm it) that humour is very much influenced by the impression of authenticity (2) in how situations are presented. Not necessarily the degree of comic effect (that depends on the audience’s taste), but above all, the possibilities and nature of the humour. The impression of authenticity can be influenced by very general frameworks such as the ontological status of the film work, genre classification etc., but also by more specific elements such as the performance of (social) actors, camera work and many others. We could apply the concept of the «uncanny valley», which in the film industry is mainly associated with visual effects, animation, or horror. In horror films, the sense of unease is consciously created, but in most cases, there is an attempt to avoid this phenomenon. This is not necessarily the case with comedies, which often build on a sense of awkwardness.

The sense of uncanny is indeed very much linked to embarrassment, as Freud and Lacan allude to (3), and in the context of awkwardness (in the comedy genre, specifically mockumentaries and documentaries), Jason Middleton elaborates on this based on a text by Silvan Tomkins. Middleton identifies the interactions between filmmakers and social actors or ontological ambivalence as important aspects of creating awkward humour (4). Particularly in comic situations that are built on a sense of awkwardness, there is tension that requires a valve to be released. The greater the tension, the less stimulus is needed (e.g. a shot of the character’s reaction etc.) (5). The nature of humour, therefore, very much depends on a degree of authenticity.

The degree of authenticity (or the position on the graph’s curve) also dictates humour possibilities because it limits possible incongruencies. In a fictional film, the range is much wider (but of course, it also depends on the modal setting of specific fictional worlds) than in an observational documentary. Rod A. Martin divides humorous events according to the degree of staging or «prefabrication» into three broad categories: jokes (prepared in advance), spontaneous conversational humour (not planned in advance but deliberately created for humour), and accidental or unintentional humour. On the other hand, by virtue of their ontological status alone, fictional works exclusively possess jokes, but documentaries can depict all three types of humour.

Documentary forms, often strongly linked to the discovery of new perspectives and, of course, to the impression of authenticity, are very open to humour, as they can ultimately operate with a much more colourful «humorous» palette. Combining and oscillating between fictional and documentary forms (also using different types of animation, abstract, or associative forms), degrees of authenticity, modes of representation (6) etc., within a single audiovisual work opens up an even greater range for possible incongruences, and thus many different forms and styles of humour.

Art Talent Show
Art Talent Show, a film by Adela Komrzy & Tomas Bojar


However, paradoxically, humour does not have to be used only for amusement. In fact, it has very important functions on psychological and social levels. These functions can be adaptive and maladaptive and are directed either at the self or others. Adaptive humour includes affiliative and self-enhancing style, and maladaptive nature possesses aggressive and self-defeating style. Affiliative humour maintains and builds positive relationships and creates a fun and pleasant atmosphere (joking around with others, saying witty things, musing stories or jokes etc.); with self-enhancing humour, for example, we try to gain joy out of bad situations, with aggressive humour, on the other hand, we try to ridicule and hurt someone (sarcastic comments, insults, hostile teasing etc.); with self-defeating humour, we point out our weaknesses to avoid criticism or to increase our popularity (7).

In her study, Robyn Brown describes the difference between self-defeating and self-deprecating humour. She argues that self-deprecating humour manifests in the same way as self-defeating humour but possesses functions of affiliative humour (8). In her further work, she and her colleagues explore how audiences perceive the specific expressions we associate with these humour styles. She finds affiliative humour is identified accurately, whereas self-enhancing and aggressive humour is not (9). In my opinion, the perceived functions of humour styles do not depend entirely on the manner of expression or the techniques we associate with them, but above all, on the dynamics of the relationships or roles of the social actors within which the (humorous) communicative act takes place.

The importance of roles in this social act in the context of intentional humour is emphasised. For example, Jean Harvey divides the roles into the initiator (the primary agent), the subject of the humour and the audience (the secondary agent). But, he adds, «[t]he game of humour is not played on an even field – especially when the subject of the humour is present (10). «Because the audience, as the secondary agent, can accept or reject the joke and thus side with the initiator or the subject. In some cases, actors in a (humorous) communicative act may have a dual role. For example, with self-enhancing, self-defeating or self-deprecating humour, the subject and the initiator are the same actor. But I don’t think the overlapping of multiple roles ends there. For example, in conversation with good friends, we can take on all three roles at once, with only the more dominant role changing depending on the dynamics of the conversation. Thus, we can be an «initiator», a «subject», and an «audience», and when it’s possible to take these roles within a social group only in quotes, the playing field of humour can be evened out. However, this requires a certain degree of closeness or intimacy between involved actors. The degree of intimacy then defines how and what can involve actors joke about. Therefore it strongly also affects both aesthetic and rhetorical aspects.

Art Talent Show
Art Talent Show, a film by Adela Komrzy & Tomas Bojar

Rhetorical functions of humour

In documentary films, intimacy also develops between three actors: the filmmaker, the protagonist (also between each protagonist) and the audience. But the intimacy with the audience is only created or gatekeeped by the filmmaker and her/his willingness to tell the audience about the protagonist and her/his relationship with a protagonist. In other words, their intimacy. We may apply here the narrative concept of communicativeness (11). Therefore, intimacy with the filmmaker and the audience is crucial for humour, particularly for the preferred interpretation of humorous events or scenes. For example, we may look at last year’s award-winning Czech documentary Art Talent Show (Adela Komrzy & Tomas Bojar, 2022), where we observe young artists trying to pass talent tests to be accepted to Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts. This documentary is praised for its comedy, but many reviews criticised the filmmaker’s insensitivity and that the comedy is created at the expense of the young artists. And according to these reviews, stereotypes connected with artists and art itself may even be reinforced due to this documentary (12).

These reviews imply the lack of intimacy between filmmakers (initiator) and their protagonists (subject). However, filmmakers mentioned that a strong intimacy developed between them and the social actors during filming. Thus, the lack of intimacy between filmmakers and the audience is much more important, as the relationships built within the film between filmmakers and protagonists are apparently not sufficiently reflected in the audience. One main reason for this is the strict compliance to an observational mode and the absence of, for example, a participatory or reflective mode. In other words, filmmakers tried to artificially distance themselves too much from protagonists through observational mode. And when there’s too much apparent distance between all three agents, the playing field of humour cannot be balanced, and comic techniques used in Art Talent Show may often resolve in humour that the audience can interpret as rather aggressive.

The mentioned «unbalanced playing field of humour» is also very important for the rhetorical effects of the documentary. The maladaptive functions of aggressive humour may not be present among all involved actors. In her study, Jennifer Hay argues that humour in social communication fulfils three functions simultaneously. These are related to (1) solidarity (sharing experiences, clarifying and maintaining boundaries, setting boundaries against outsiders, teasing etc.), (2) power (developing conflict, controlling members of a group, setting or challenging boundaries, hostility, teasing etc.) and (3) psychological needs in social interactions (primarily as coping, whether connected specific interactions or general problems) (13). Turning again to the example of the Art Talent Show, maladaptive functions may be present between the audience and protagonists, but at the same time, solidarity is built between the audience and filmmakers and audience members themselves – there is an adaptive function. This setting (which is not uncommon for various satirical or politically critical documentary comedies) separates these groups. The audience does not accept new perspectives that are (re)presented by protagonists (hence reflected reinforcement of stereotypes). On the other hand, by theoretically emphasising affiliative style within the film, thus providing adaptive functions and creating solidarity between actors with all three social roles (initiator, subject, audience), humour also has great rhetorical potential to make the audience accept the new perspectives positively.

The concept of intimacy is crucial for interpreting humour’s nature (not only in documentary films); therefore, it greatly influences the rhetorical properties of humour. It also very much affects documentary films aesthetically, similar to authenticity. Theories that have been developed recently present humour as a play (14). Similarly, I also understand humour as a device to play with the aesthetic possibilities of the film medium. And reciprocally, it’s possible to explore humour’s aesthetic possibilities by playing with formal and stylistic aspects of documentary films. But filmmakers should also be careful while playing, as humour is a powerful rhetorical device. Therefore, observing the rhetorical possibilities of (documentary) film humour and how humour can present new perspectives on this level will be interesting besides the aesthetic.


  1. For very in-depth text about other theories of humour and other general aspects of humour, see MARTIN, Rod A. The Psychology of Humor: An Integrative Approach. Elsevier Academic Press, 2007, pp. 62-72.
  2. In this meta-analysis, the authors explore different definitions of authenticity, which is often defined differently: LEHMAN, W. David, Kieran O’Connor, Balazs Kovacs, a George E. Newman. Authenticity. Academy of Management Annals. 2019, Vol. 13, No. 1.
  3. ROBERTSON, Brian. Lacanian Antiphilosophy and the Problem of Anxiety: An Uncanny Little Object. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp. 19-20.
  4. MIDDLETON, Jason. Documentary’s Awkward Turn: Cringe Comedy and Media Spectatorship. Routledge, 2014, pp. 1-23.
  5. The «relief theory» of humor is also related to this in a way. However, the theory goes even further into the psychoanalytic level. It was elaborated by Freud in his text Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.
  6. NICHOLS, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Indiana University Press, 2001, pp. 99-138.
  7. MARTIN, Rod A., Patricia Puhlik-Doris, Gwen Larsen, Jeanette Gray a Kelly Weir. Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire. Journal of Research in Personality. 2003, Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 70-71.
  8. BROWN, Robyn. Self-Defeating vs Self-Deprecating Humour: A Case of Being Laughed At vs. Laughed With?. Melbourne, 2019. Disertační práce. Swinburne University of Technology, pp. 14-15.
  9. BROWN, Robyn, Bruce Findlay a Jay K. Brinker. Individual differences in the way observers perceive humour styles.European Journal of Humour Research. 2019, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 132.
  10. HARVEY, Jean. Humor as social act: Ethical issues.The Journal of Value Inquiry. 1995, Vol. 29, pp. 20.
  11. BORDWELL, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, pp. 59.
  12. For example. ŠRAJER, Martin. Hovno, nebo krev? Dokument Zkouška umění svým aktérům nedává na výběr. A2larm. Pub. 10. 11. 2022. Accessible at: also PURKRÁBKOVÁ Noemi and Jiří Sirůček. Kdo se směje naposled?. Art Antiques. Accessible at: The filmmakers also comment on this in an interview with Cinepur: SVOBODA, Martin. Komrzý – Bojar: je hezké, že si pořád ještě nerozumíme. Pub. 6. 12. 2022. Accessible at:
  13. HAY, Jennifer. Functions of humor in the conversations of men and women. Journal of Pragmatics. 2000, Vol. 32, No. 6, pp. 716-726.
  14. BOYD, Brian. Laughter and Literature: A Play Theory of Humor. Philosophy and Literature. 2004, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 1-22. či MORREALL, John. Philosophy of Humor. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Pub. 20. 11. 2012, last modified 20. 8. 2020. Accessible at:

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